United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Director-General holds information meeting on 10 years of bioethics at UNESCO

On Thursday, 11 June 2009, the Director-General of UNESCO, Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, held an information meeting for Ambassadors and Permanent delegates at the Organization’s Headquarters on UNESCO’s major achievements in the area of bioethics over the past ten years.

The meeting was held in the presence of Ambassador George Anastassopoulos, President of UNESCO’s General Conference.

In his opening remarks, the Director-General noted that the focus on bioethics over the past decade had considerably helped to raise the Organization’s profile within the UN system, bringing to the fore UNESCO’s unique role in translating ethical principles into universally-agreed normative texts, create a better understanding of and response to major ethical challenges, and support pluridisciplinary analysis and multicultural discussions on these complex issues in the international arena, in particular through the work of its two bioethics committees, the International bioethics Committee (IBC) and the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC).

Mr Matsuura first emphasized UNESCO’s major achievements in the area of standard-setting, including the consensual adoption of the 1997 Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the 2003 International Declaration on Human Genetic Data and the 2005 Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. The Director-General noted that these three Declarations had served to highlight the importance of protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms in all decisions and practices involving bioethical issues. “They set universal standards in the field of bioethics, with due respect for human dignity and human rights and freedoms. They deal with a wide range of ethical issues raised by biomedicine and biology, but also life sciences and associated technologies applied to human beings. And they do so from a broad perspective, which takes into account social, legal and environmental dimensions”, he emphasized. “The new universal principles recognized by the 2005 Declaration – such as those of human dignity and human rights, justice and equity, non-discrimination, informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, social responsibility and health – helped us to respond to the concerns of the developing world, while paving the way for a new international agenda for bioethics”, added Mr Matsuura.

The Director-General went on to analyse how the bioethics programme had evolved to adapt to new social needs and political demands, notably through an increased focus on awareness-raising and capacity-building activities. Mr Matsuura described the three new projects recently introduced to provide support to Member States in disseminating the principles set out in the three Declarations, the Global Ethics Observatory, the Assisting Bioethics Committees, and the Ethics Education Programme. In this process, the Director-General noted that “helping countries in the developing world, particularly in Africa, strengthen their scientific, technological and institutional capacities to respond to new challenges in bioethics”, remained a top priority for the Organization.

The Director-General concluded by signalling some of the new emerging challenges, and the possible avenues for action for the Organization in the years ahead. Citing the examples of organ transplantation, genetic testing, biobanking, neuroscience, biometrics and nanomedicine, the development of Genetically Modified Organisms in Africa, and the questions posed by stem-cell research, in particular Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells), the Director-General said that “UNESCO should always stand ready to respond to emerging ethical challenges and find ways to resolve bioethical dilemmas through international cooperation, in a spirit of consensus”.

In this context, in line with the recommendation made by IBC experts in their latest report (Human Cloning and International Governance, June 2009), Mr Matsuura underlined the crucial need to have a focused dialogue on the issue. “Member States, during the next session of the General Conference, could perhaps envisage asking the Secretariat to continue to lead international reflection on the issue of human cloning and international governance, thereby paving the way for possible future normative action. If this is the case, the next IBC session, now rescheduled for the end of November, after the General Conference, could be a first opportunity to discuss the follow-up to this report”, said Mr Matsuura. “As I have often argued, ethics is not the sole concern of specialists and politicians; it concerns the values and rights of all citizens. It is therefore important for UNESCO and the international community to continue engaging in such debates”, he concluded.

The President of the General-Conference, Ambassador George Anastassopoulos, also took the floor to support the work undertaken by UNESCO in the area of bioethics. “It represents without doubt one of UNESCO’s most important comparative advantages and an area where the Organization can add real value at the international level”, he underlined. Ambassador Anastassopoulos went on to note that in the area of human cloning, it could be feasible for the international community to identify and formulate, in the years ahead and where relevant and appropriate, commonly shared ethical principles.

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Author(s): Office of the Spokesperson - Source: Flash Info N° 112-2009 -  Publication Date: 15-06-2009

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